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DIY food photography setup

So you want to take awesome pictures of food. Great, me too. If I’ve learned anything from the 29376492 websites I’ve read about food photography, it takes time and practice.

But, a few tools and proper lighting also help.

DIY Food Photography Setup Light Box

Let’s focus on lighting.

Last year, I jumped off the deep end with a few recipes like Hungarian Goulash with homemade Spaetzle. To say this took me a lot of work is an understatement. It was probably almost 20 hours of prep work and cooking. At 10 o’clock at night, when we were finally able to sit down and eat, I took a bunch of pictures. I ended up with this.

Hungarian Goulash with Homemade Spaetzle
Florescent Lighting

Blah! That doesn’t look good at all! It looks like a big pile of slop. It doesn’t taste like a pile of slop at all though. In fact, it was amazing! But would you know from the picture? Not at all.

Compare that picture to a picture of my Lemon Panna Cotta with Raspberry Gelee. I took this picture with an artificial light setup I threw together for $15.83.

Lemon Panna Cotta with Raspberry Anise Gelee and Caramel Tuile
DIY Lightbox Lighting

Yes, please! It’s nice and bright, I can see the various textures and colors, and it looks deliciously appetizing.

I took pictures of the Hungarian Goulash under fluorescent lighting. This is the type of lighting most people have in their house. The problem is, florescent lighting sucks.

Another thing to note is the difference in whether the light is coming in the from the ceiling (i.e. standard overhead florescent lighting) or from the side. Feel free to experiment to create the effect you’re looking for, but I’ve found that it’s best to have light come in from directly to the side if you want to emphasize the various textures and provide a slight shadow, or, from at 45 degree angle if you want a clear and consistent view of everything. Overhead lights won’t do your food any justice.

So how do we get this kind of lighting but still be flexible in the style of pictures we take? Well, you could perfectly time all of your recipes to finish between 10 am to 11 am when the light comes in through your kitchen window at the right angle. But be careful at 11 when the sun is too strong or it’ll wash everything out. Also watch out for late afternoon because everything looks rather orange from the sun setting lower in the sky. And God forbid its cloudy. Or rainy. Or you have a life and commitments or you forgot something at the grocery store and oh my god you missed your window!!

Let’s just say this approach alone won’t work for me. I need to recreate natural sunlight so I can take pictures at 10 o’clock at night and 5 o’clock in the morning like a normal person. (What, you don’t?) There are two things I need to support my nighttime cooking habits:

  • (a) a light source that looks like natural sunlight
  • (b) a way to create soft, diffuse light, not like a spotlight or flashlight

I also have two other requirements because I’m still experimenting with my photography style.

  • (c) a setup that allows for multiple viewing angles
  • (d) a setup that was flexible for different photography styles, i.e. bright and cheerful or dark and dramatic

To tackle (a), I looked at what many other food photographers are doing. This is when I ran into a common issue with many food blogs. They promote what gets promoted to them. Many people rave about these Lowel EGO Lights, but I can’t justify $125 per light for a hobby that doesn’t make any profit. If you’re a similar situation, you shouldn’t either. This is just one light people, we haven’t even talked about tripods or food props! Save your money and DIY.

Part A: A light source that looks like natural sunlight

Let’s start with the light source. I ended up getting this lightbulb at my local hardware store for $6.98 . The important things to note here are the spectrum (6500K) and the lumens (750). The 6500K means it will shine light in the same spectrum as sunlight and 750 lumens means it is a standard strength. I paired this lightbulb with a clamp style task light, also sold at hardware stores, currently only $7.85 at Lowes. Together, this cost only $14.83.

Higher is better for both numbers, so if you find anything with 1000 lumens (like this lightbulb), give it a try.

Lowes Bayco Clamp Light for DIY Food Photography Setup Light Box

I could buy 8 light sets and it’d still be cheaper than ONE Lowel EGO. Think about it…

The same or similar items are also available on Amazon

 

You may be worried you don’t have anything to clamp the light to. I was. But I made myself buy it then figure it out. It turns out, you can be pretty ingenuitive if you have to. I propped it up on the floor for Maple Harissa Roasted Carrots, clamped it to the legs of a desk for Flourless Chocolate Cake, and clamped it to a floor lamp that I dragged around the house for most other pictures. Hey, we said this was DIY didn’t we?

To avoid any interference with the gross overhead florescent lighting, always turn off ALL of normal house while you’re taking pictures. Yes, that might mean effectively taking pictures in the dark.

Part B: A way to diffuse the light source

So we have a light source, now how do we diffuse it? I tried various things like a piece of printer paper, poster paper, and even a sheet. (I also tried a dog, a baby, and my husband. None of those work, so don’t bother trying. They’re too wiggly.) It turns out I had the perfect thing tucked in storage: a set of semi sheer IKEA curtains.  I’m even not sure why I kept them, but now’s not the time for questions.

They were like the ones in the link below, but they were cheaper in the store. Click the picture then scroll down to Customer Images on the right-hand side of the Reviews section for a better view of what to look for.

Now, I could find a way to hang the curtain somewhere between the light and the food, or create some sort of screen out of it and prop it up on the table but (1) I have a significant shortage in random stands and hanging devices and (2) I don’t want to deal with propping up stands on a table. They always fall over and I don’t want to have to rely on that much extra space on my table or kitchen counter.

But I did have a box. (Thanks Amazon Prime!)

You will want a cardboard box that’s at least 16″ deep x 20″ wide x 15″ tall. If you go any smaller, you will have a hard time taking pictures of your food without the sides of the box getting in the picture. You also want the box big enough to fit whatever you want to put your food on (large platters, cutting boards, etc) with room to spare.

DIY Food Photography Setup Light Box

I positioned the box on its bottom so it was wider than it was tall. Then I cut along the sides of the box to allow light to come in from the sides. I removed the front and top to provide access and more ways for light to come in. I left the edges, bottom, and back to provide structure. Lastly, I cut out two squares of curtain and hot glued them to the two sides (double sided tape wasnt strong enough).

DIY Food Photography Setup Light Box

Now we have light coming in from the side, softly bouncing back, and a wide viewing angle to take pictures. To make the inside of the box clean and appealing, I bought a piece of 22″x28″ poster board (the thin, paper-like, flexible kind) from the dollar store, trimmed it down to fit, and lined the bottom and back of the box with it. I also added sides to block out any possible view of the cardboard edges.

To keep the poster board in place, I clipped it to the top. You could use any color or texture fabric or poster board you like, but I wanted to have a clean white background. You can add other color and textures on top of it if you want a different background.

They’re only a dollar each, so buy a few pieces of poster paper while you’re at it. Eventually it get little stains and discolorations that show up in your pictures, so you’ll want to change it out every couple months.

DIY Food Photography Setup Light Box

Part C: A setup that allows for multiple viewing angles

Sometimes I want a top down picture to show you everything on my cutting board. Other times I want to make it look like the dish is in front of you on the kitchen table. Other times (i.e. almost all the time), I’m not really sure what I’m doing so I want to take pictures until I figure out what looks good.

By positioning the box out so the long side faces me, then cutting out the front and top, I’ve created a wide swath of viewing angles. I can do a top down, a side shot, and everywhere in between and move the box wherever I want (table, floor, countertop). Mission accomplished.

DIY Food Photography Setup Light BoxDIY Food Photography Setup Light Box Result

 

Part D: A setup that was flexible for different photography styles

One of the best things you can do is try a variety of viewing angles with different light angles and intensity (i.e. bring the light closer, move it further away) to find your style. You may find you like dark and moody pictures for desserts to give a sense you’re eating it at night by a crackling fireplace. For soups you may want a more diffuse light to make it feel like you’re eating it by the window on a rainy day. You can change your technique to suit the mood and experience you want people to think about when they see your picture.

This setup may not be the nicest thing to look at, but it didn’t break the bank. It gave me more wiggle room to consider other equipment (tripod) or ingredients for recipes (gum paste, duck breast). Even so, I don’t think you can really tell what type of setup I’m using, can you?

When you first get started, you may not have a tripod. It’s ok! Neither did I. You can improvise! (Who said workout supplements don’t work?)DIY Food Photography Setup Light Box Tripod

Recap

We wanted the following:

  • (a) a light source that looks like natural sunlight
  • (b) a way to create soft, diffuse light, not flashlight style
  • (c) a setup that allows for multiple viewing angles
  • (d) a setup that was flexible for different photography styles, i.e. bright and cheerful or dark and dramatic

To do this, we used

  • a large cardboard box (already had) 
  • a thin fabric like semi sheer curtains or a thin white t-shirt (already had)
  • an incandescent 150-watt work light (shop Lowes, shop Amazon)
  • an incandescent daylight lightbulb (shop Lowes, shop Amazon)
  • superglue/hot glue (already had)
  • at least one piece of poster board ($1)
  • stubborn determination to not buy overpriced food photography lights (already had) 

And it cost a cool $15.83.

Tell Us

Have you put together a cheap DIY food photography light setup? What did you do?

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